Generally I assert that all change is bad. However, change within art forms is an exception to this iron-clad rule. The most fascinating moments in the music world happen when techniques change, when new ideas are introduced. In popular music one of those moments occurred in the late 70s when mainstream rock/pop became so bloated and corporate-driven that the unwashed masses started a grassroots movement that became known as punk.
The heart of the punk rock movement was not found in a particular sound or lyric but in an idea: Anyone can make music! Thus, the do-it-yourself revolution came about. Punk bands exploded in the UK, to a lesser extent in the US, and other DIY subgenres such as no wave also reared up their ugly heads. Love Rock Revolution: K Records and the Rise of Independent Music by Mark Baumgarten is a charming book that looks at one branch of the anyones who made and continue to make music in the spirit of the punk revolution.
Led by leather-jacketed anarchists, teens ignited London in a burst of figurative flames. Meanwhile, in a small fishing village on the coast of Washington state… Well, actually in the capital city of Olympia, a different kind of musical revolution began, one that many of us are not so familiar with. ‘Round about 1982 Calvin Johnson began releasing cassettes on his label, K Records, out of Olympia. As a teenager, Calvin was transformed by punk rock, but as a music maker his tastes went in a slightly different direction.
When Johnson put together his band Beat Happening in 1982, none of the members were experienced musicians. This typifies the punk/DIY mindset. But the music that they created, while simple and non-technical, had little in common with punk sonically. Lo-fi recording techniques, the band’s lack of instrumental skills, Johnson’s deep voice – all these factors contributed to a new sound which has been called lo-fi, twee pop and indie pop. Often described as childlike or sweet, Beat Happening’s music is a bit of a love-it-or-hate-it kind of a deal.
As time passed, Johnson recorded other bands, began selling vinyl, distributed for yet other bands, and slowly increased the traffic of K Records. Meanwhile, through national and international connections, he also significantly contributed to the development of independent music, an influence that continues to be strong 35 years later.
To name but a few of the accomplishments that came out of K Records:
- The inclusion of women in rock music: The riot grrrl movement, which later became associated with the Kill Rock Stars label, originated at K Records. Concerts put on by the label were inclusive of female performers.
- All-age performances all of the time: Johnson would not perform in venues unless they were open to all ages, and he continued this philosophy when booking concert events for K bands.
- Artists receive 50% of profits made from record sales: This was an unheard of split when the label started, but Johnson considered it imperative. Also, business is done on a handshake rather than with a written contract.
Love Rock Revolution is highly entertaining and informative, an enjoyable read on one aspect of the PNW music scene. If you’re looking for other related materials, try The Punk Singer, a documentary about Kathleen Hanna and the riot grrrl movement, or The Strangest Tribe: How a Group of Seattle Rock Bands Invented Grunge. And be sure to check out our selection of Local CDs. Enjoy!